Courses and circles for aspiring songwriters are becoming popular, but do they help? We check out a workshop in Bristol
t’s midday on a bitterly cold Sunday in November, but I’m given a very warm welcome from tutor Jack Jennings of Night Train and his students at the Songwriting & Composition workshop. The class is a new addition to Night Train’s tuition line-up, which already includes several guitar techniques classes, and is held upstairs at the city’s well-known Drumbank music shop.
The environment is informal and very musical – drums, amps, guitars, music stands and an upright piano litter the room – which helps generate a relaxed creative atmosphere. Where school- or college-based courses can feel uptight and too academic for the creativity to properly flow, this room at Drumbank, coupled with Jack’s laidback approach, brought a sense of calm to the group and allowed an open exchange of ideas and friendly support.[cc_blockquote_right] THE MAIN PREMISE OF THE WORKSHOP IS TO EXPLORE POSSIBILITIES AND GET EVERYONE CONTRIBUTING [/cc_blockquote_right]
With seven years’ teaching experience after studying popular music, Jack’s background is varied and his tastes diverse, ranging from rock fusion to Indian classical music. Witnessing a few licks expertly executed throughout the afternoon, it’s obviously he’s an accomplished guitarist and has the benefit of many years learning scales, which no doubt comes in useful during this workshop. His experience with different groups, and constant involvement in co-writing, provides an openness to all styles when it comes to songwriting and it shows.
This is another important attribute for a tutor as, with a workshop of this nature, there’s no telling who’s going to arrive and what sort of music they’ll be expecting to develop. As Jack himself says, “The main premise of the workshop is to explore possibilities and get everyone contributing.”
Having met the day before, the group are in the middle of dissecting the chords of a new song that had been brought to the table by Lynn, one of the student. Classically trained on piano and flute as a child, Lynn hadn’t kept the musicianship going through adult life, finding it difficult to carve out any time to practise in between full-time work and home-life, so this weekend provided the perfect excuse to invest in her musical passion.
For the past 15 years Lynn had sung in a choir, but hadn’t made the leap to creating her own original material. It was only when her father passed away that Lynn felt compelled to write a poem, which she turned into a song and took the opportunity to record with a producer. This led to her writing more songs and it’s Lynn’s semi-complete melody and lyric The Great Divide that we’re developing today.
Lynn confesses: “I can do melodies and lyrics but not chords”, so Jack carefully talks through the notes in each topline, identifies the key and suggests chordal options that will fit. One of his suggestions happens to be a “slash chord” – where he adds a different bass note to the shape – which is a new concept to Lynn. Suddenly a very straight major chord takes on a different tone, which in turn gives another student called Chris an idea for the accompanying bassline.
At that moment our little group starts to evolve into the dynamic of a band, and it’s a chance for solo songwriters like Lynn to bounce ideas off other musicians. “It’s so much different when you’ve got other people around you. I love it!”
Chris is equally chuffed, even though it’s not his song, as he’s still learning a lot from the process. “It’s a different way of applying the theory of chords and scales. Interesting to see that in action.” It’s not until I chat with him later that I realise that this is a fairly new experience for him too. “The course interested me. I’d heard about them but didn’t know how songwriting courses would be run.”
This is one of the key benefits to a songwriting workshop. When writing songs, you might know vaguely what you’re doing but everything still tends to happen by accident rather than design, so this is a rare opportunity for most of us to apply a bit of science to the art of making music. It’s fairly easy to start things off on your own, but for an instinctive amateur songwriter like me – and most of the other students in the room who haven’t been classically-trained – the next natural step would be a trial-and-error approach to finding chords. Most of us would literally strum chords at random until miraculously landing on a suitable combination. But getting some one-to-one guidance from a technical musician like Jack means the chordal decisions made by Lynn and Chris are based more on judgement than luck.[cc_blockquote_right] IT’S SO MUCH DIFFERENT WHEN YOU’VE GOT OTHER PEOPLE AROUND YOU. I LOVE IT! [/cc_blockquote_right]
It also helped that someone like Jack has a hands-on approach and isn’t afraid for his students to make mistakes. In fact, he seemed to relish something going wrong as it gave another opportunity to explain why it’s not right… or potentially interesting because it’s not technically correct. Jack was very articulate and deliberate with explanations, making good use of colourful adjectives to explain devices and choices – at one point he described a chord as “wholesome”.
We’d worked on the song for the first half of the day and then, after a short tea break, we went into student mode with Jack carrying out a concise lecture on some music theory. Topics covered included scalic movement and counterpoint, which might sound a bit like going back to school, but with Jack’s enthusiastic manner and plenty of ad hoc demonstrations on the guitar, it was actually very absorbing and refreshing after the creative phase.
At the end of three hours – that seemed to pass in a flash – we left with our heads full of fresh ideas and knowledge, and we all agreed it was a fascinating and satisfying session that we’d do again. Lynn felt the same: “I came away with ideas to try and put into practice. It was great listening to the lyrics and melody that I had written, come to life! I hope I can complete and record it sometime next year.”
In fact, since the workshop she’s continued to develop and improve her songwriting skills by working on her first Christmas song. “I was totally open-minded. I didn’t know what to expect and how many people would be there,” she told me later. “The workshop was a great two days’ worth of great learning and enjoyment. It was very good value for money too.”
And the time with Jack certainly hasn’t dampened her ambition and determination, as Lynn intends to record the festive composition and sell CDs of the track for charity. If she succeeds then that’s a testimony to the positive effects of just one weekend spent at a songwriting workshop!
If you’d like to book a place at one of Night Train’s Songwriting & Composition workshops, give Jack a call on 07757 550462 or visit www.nighttrainguitar.co.uk